Issue 52,

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NWR Issue 52

A defining moment

Spring 2001 has the hallmarks of a defining moment in modern Welsh history. The proposed rundown of steel production and the threat to the future of Welsh agriculture posed by the worst foot and mouth epidemic in living memory strike at the foundations of two basic industries which created the Welsh urban and rural society and culture which we have inherited. Two other, once-dominant industries, coal and slate, are already a shadow of their former selves.

The shutdown of Ebbw Vale steelworks will bring down a final curtain on an industry which, taking advantage of the natural juxtaposition of iron and coal, grew up along the Heads of the Valleys two centuries ago, creating not only Wales's but arguably the world's first industrial society. The new political and social collectivism of that society gave rise to such rebellions against the status quo as the Merthyr Riots (1831) and the Chartist Uprising (1839), signalling the gradual emergence of the age of the common man and today's democracy. It also foreshadowed many of the characteristics of modern urban society as the beckoning opportunities and relative prosperity of the 19th and early 20th century gave way to decades of industrial depression and relative poverty.

In spite of the urban perceptions to the contrary, Welsh agriculture has passed through comparable upheavals. The apparent timelessness of the Welsh landscape belies that painful transition which the Welsh countryside has undergone over the past 200 years, from a peasant subsistence agriculture to today's matrix of small agri-businesses, forcing farming to be increasingly intensive in order to survive in a countryside otherwise notable for the high proportion of weekend cottages owned by the urban well-to-do.

Viewed historically, the only respites for Welsh agriculture since the 1880s have been relatively short-lived periods of prosperity brought about by world war when Britain's urban population was cut off from overseas supplies and, in the 1970s and 1980s, by the UK's adhesion to a European Common Agricultural Policy giving greater protection to farmers and home-grown food supplies.

However, the CAP bonanza for Welsh farmers was already long over before the present disaster struck - destroyed by adverse currency movements, BSE and other food scares, and the squeeze on incomes exerted by the market dominance of supermarket chains. Many will regard the latest crisis as the last straw.

The foot and mouth epidemic is not just producing apocalyptic scenes in the shape of funeral pyres and burial pits, but calling into question the traditional support farmers receive from the taxpayer in order to conserve the landscape as well as give them a viable living. Long term, the most disturbing aspect of the current crisis - and one which makes it a defining moment - has been the vocal expressions of urban impatience towards the farming industry as it wrestles with the latest disaster. Once the immediate crisis is over, this impatience could well harden into outright political hostility towards continuing to subsidize the traditional rural economy via the taxpayer, particularly when cheaper supplies are available from industrial-scale farming units and from other parts of the world.

This may not be true of the majority of people in Wales where town and country lie cheek by jowl and where there is a greater consciousness of, and empathy towards, the difficulties facing both industrial and rural communities. This is probably one reason why two of the most important books of the recent past, illuminating the inter-relationships - and tensions - between the urban and the rural, the metropolitan and the provincial, are by Welsh authors - Raymond Williams's The Country and the City and Elaine Morgan's Falling Apart: The Rise and Decline of Urban Civilisation.

However, the heavy political guns are in the hands of an increasingly unsympathetic metropolitan majority located elsewhere. The National Assembly's powers to act are very limited. It will need all the intellectual as well as material resources it can muster if it is to rebuild a new positive relationship between town and country and a more stable future for those industrial and rural communities now threatened with the loss of their traditional livelihoods.


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